Like water for traffic


I found an interesting parallel in the March 2, 2015, issue of High Country News between our use of roads and our use of water. In “Big dig, big disgrace,” the trials and tribulations of Bertha’s attempt to dig a highway tunnel under the Seattle waterfront point to a counterintuitive reality, that more roads might lead to more traffic, not less. In the cover story, “Unite and Conquer,” the woes of Western water supply are discussed from the vantage point of a water manager trying to provide water to her area.

Reading about the lack of available water, and knowing that the West’s grand dam-building era has all but ended, begs the question: Does our use of water mimic our road use? Are we likely to use more water if it’s available and less if it is simply not? Water-use data from the U.S. Geological Service over the past 50 years seem to say this is true. While we were building dams and water projects through the 1960s and 1970s, Western water use kept growing. But since the 1980s, it’s actually decreased substantially. It is hard to believe, but our water use in 2010 is actually less than it was in 1970.

This, despite the fact that the Western population has grown by the millions and our economic output has grown by the billions. If our total water use has not increased in the past 40 years, why would it exponentially grow over the next 40 years? My guess is that it won’t, because there is no water to support it. Future water projects will more than likely be aimed at increasing the efficiency of existing uses, typically with the goal of preserving agricultural lands in the face of growing municipal water demands. These two articles provided me with a new perspective on our demand for water, and how flexible that demand might be. Just as fewer roads means less driving, maybe fewer water projects means lower water demand.

Fort Collins, Colorado